Net neutrality regulation has often been described as a “solution without a problem.” While supporters produce hypothetical concerns like little chocolate doughnuts, real-life examples of abuse have been virtually impossible to find. That probably explains the excitement in the pro-regulation camp over an incident last week involving the unlikely combination of AT&T and Pearl Jam.
It all started one week ago Sunday, during the annual Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. Pearl Jam was singing the ancient hit “Another Brick in the Wall,” updating it to include some not-so-complimentary verses about George Bush. So far so good. But, as it turns out, some of the Bush references were bleeped out of the webcast of the event being shown on AT&T’s “Blue Room” website (attblueroom.com).
The incident has been seized on by pro-regulation advocates as their long-sought “smoking gun” on the need for neutrality rules. “Over the weekend, AT&T gave us a glimpse of their plans for the Web when they censored a Pearl Jam performance that didn’t meet their standard of “Internet freedom,” reported SavetheInternet.com. “See what the Internet would look like without Net Neutrality,” advertised Free Press.
Pearl Jam itself declared itself a political victim, issuing a statement stating that: “What happened to us this weekend was about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band.”
Actually, the incident was about something much smaller than that.
As a first matter, it’s unclear why the words were bleeped. AT&T says it was the fault of an over-anxious contractor, hired to keep indecent content off the webcast. Since Blue Room a non-age-restricted website, that’s probably a reasonable thing to do. But what if the aim were in fact broader, and this was an intentional effort to “censor” political comment? Frankly, even then, it’s hard to get worked up. AT&T’s “Blue Room” hardly has a bottleneck over news and information. It hardly has a bottle at all. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of Blue Room, much less visited it. If the goal was to keep Pearl Jam’s policy views from the American public, it would be hard to think of a more ineffectual way to go about it.
AT&T did have exclusive rights to webcast Lollapalooza. But that was due to a voluntary contract between the event’s organizers and AT&T. Although the details aren’t clear, no one has hinted at any arm-twisting. It’s also unclear what the deal said about AT&T’s ability to filter content, so it is possible that a contractual violation did occur. In any case, if Lollapalooza’s organizers are unhappy about AT&T’s webcasting, they are of course free to sell the rights to someone else next year. Or not to grant exclusive rights at all. (Concerts, after all, may want to be free).
At any rate, if this was an exercise in censorship, the whole thing was an utter failure. Pearl Jam ended up getting massive publicity for its views. It was the bleep that launched a thousand blogs. More than that actually: a Google search last weekend produced 442 news stories and 8.904 blog posts with the words “Pearl Jam” and “AT&T”.
If anything, the incident showed how futile attempts at censorship would be in today’s media marketplace, even by a company as large as AT&T. To answer Free Press, yes, we can see what the world would look like without neutrality regulation. It looks good.